Monday 29 April 2024

Doing and Being

Reflecting on my post last week, about 
Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety, I think that - whilst I stand by every word of if - it may be a bit misleading.  It reads as though, if one does all the things I mention, that will necessarily create psychological safety.  And I do not believe that to be the case. 

In fact, if one approaches the activity with that attitude, I think it probably won't work.One of the things that Nancy Kline is fond of saying to teachers of the Thinking Environment is 'What you are teaching is you!' 

That is to say, the Thinking Environment is about the Environment we create for others when they are thinking in our presence. So whilst understanding and striving to create the 10 Components is essential, even more essential is trying to be and live the 10 Components: to embody them in the way we are, and the way we relate to people.

That is one of the reasons that a condition of accreditation in this work is a commitment to have regular Thinking Partnership sessions with another skilled practitioner.  It is also the reason that one of the key aspects of training in this work is what I call 'total immersion.' That is why I choose not to run training online. The feedback I get from participants on my programmes in the Lake District is that they have a quality something like a retreat.  And that, I think, is something about being, not just doing.

Friday 19 April 2024

Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety

This week I ran a session at the AHUA (Association of Heads of University Administration) conference in Leeds.  It was called Listening, Difference and Psychological Safety and was about facilitating conversations about topics where the discourse has become so toxic on campus that it seems people are determined not to listen to those with other views (the trans/GC issue, and the conflict in the Middle East are two current examples). 

I started, very deliberately, with a few processes and activities designed to generate and strengthen a sense of psychological safety in the room, including a series of Rounds at the small tables around which participants were gathered (See here for some reflections on why Rounds are so effective at creating Psychological Safety).

I then pointed out what I had done and why: how my introduction, use of rounds (and the questions I'd chosen to ask them) and use of humour were all designed to calm the amygdala, and invite them to engage their pro-social (rather than fight-or-flight) operating systems (if this is new to you, see here).

That led us onto why I was running the session: the problem I was seeking to address (and one which they all recognised: they had, after all, chosen to attend this session rather than the others on offer at the same time).  I shared some experiences of being told by academics and professional staff in universities of topics that were not safe to discuss, and my unease at that, and my belief that Nancy Kline's work had something to offer here.

Then I described the experiment we had run at the Thinking Environment Collegiate. of getting people with strongly-held opposing views to have a dialogue, with the brief to understand the other and seek to be understood (but not to persuade or seek to persuade). This had the effect of changing neither party's beliefs, but (and this was the interesting and valuable bit) each person felt more positively about the other after the discussion than before - not the usual result of such exchanges.  (I have written about this more extensively here).

We then discussed the components of a Thinking Environment in a little more detail, and in particular the dialogue process. In this, two people agree on the question to be addressed. Then Person 1 asks Person 2 the question, and listens, with complete attention, and above all without interrupting, while Person 2 thinks out loud about the question. Person 2 has the discipline only to talk for 2 or 3 minutes, and then ask Person 1: What do you think?  Person 2 then listens, with complete attention, and above all without interrupting, while Person 1 thinks out loud about the question (which may or may not include picking up themes from Person 2's thoughts). Person 1 has the discipline only to talk for 2 or 3 minutes, and then ask Person 2: What do you think?  and so on. 

This process is extraordinary.  Each person, knowing that he or she will not be interrupted, is free to think, without urgency, and knowing that he or she will have a further turn also releases pressure. Paying heed to the other, by not talking  too long, and by inviting the other to think in turn, also transforms the conversation; and above all, genuinely listening to the other, seeking to understand, changes the whole emotional dynamic. 

So having described that, I got them to do it. And they found the results as powerful as I had promised.

Finally I got them to appreciate the person with whom they had had the dialogue, and share a key learning in a final round in plenary.

The feedback was very powerful: not least as people felt they had some practical techniques they could go away and implement with a high level of confidence.

And many committed to coming to the AHUA Diversity of Viewpoints Workshop which I will be running in London in September, to explore these ideas, and this approach, in more depth.

Tuesday 16 April 2024

The Foundation Programme; Facilitating Groups Brilliantly

Do you run team meetings, facilitate learning events, chair boards or executive groups, or in any other context,  get people together to think about important things?  Do you ever find that people don't contribute as well as you would hope, or that some dominate and others don't contribute?

If you wish to take your skills in running groups to the next level, and develop a set of approaches that increases participation, honest discussion and real engagement, then you will find it valuable to engage with the Thiniking Environment.

This is based on Nancy Kline's work, published as Time to Think, More Time to Think, and The Promise that Changes Everything.

At the heart of Nancy's approach, which she calls a Thinking Environment, is the belief that attention is generative; that is, the quality of someone's thinking, in my presence, is at least in part a product of the quality of attention that I give to them. (if you doubt this, consider the reverse: when you are trying to think about something and the person who is meant to be listening is clearly not attending... see what I mean?)

But in addition to a quality of attention that is in fact rare in most work contexts, there are nine other components of Thinking Environment; and there are various applications of these components that are suited to both group and one-to-one contexts.

The Foundation Programme is an introduction to this work in the context of working with groups: a precise but easeful approach to enabling all present to think outstandingly well.  I have blogged previously about this many times, ranging from my initial exploration of the process with Nancy, through to its practical application in a coaching session. (Other posts may be found by clicking here).

So I am delighted to be offering the Foundation Programme in the Lake District, this June (13/14). This Programme teaches you the ten components of the Thinking Environment, and a number of practical applications and findings that will transform your meetings.

If you choose to join us, you will be working as part of a small group of practitioners, jointly exploring the practice through practice!

This course is a prerequisite for the Thinking Environment Facilitator Qualifying Course, should you wish to take your practice to the next level.

More details are on my website, here; and of course if you wish to talk about the programme, or have any questions, I'd be delighted to hear from you.

Saturday 13 April 2024

Joe, Harry and Nancy

I have long liked the Johari Window (so named after its inventors, Joseph Luft and Harry Ingham).

The essential idea is that there is stuff about me that I am aware of, and that is known to others with whom I work, that constitutes my work persona: the open area, or arena, as it is sometimes called. 

Then there are things that I know that I choose not to reveal to others, for whatever reason; I maintain a façade; moreover, there are things that are clear to those who work with me, but of which I am ignorant - my blind spots; and finally, there are things that are unknown both to me and those I work with - the unknown area.

The assumption is that for effective work with colleagues and in teams, the larger the arena, the better. Thus if I am holding out on people, by hiding my true thoughts, feelings, intentions etc behind a façade, it will be harder for others to work with me effectively. Likewise, if my behaviour is having an impact of which I am unaware, due to my blind spots, we will not work as well together.

So Joe and Harry recommend that one reduces the Façade, through disclosure; and reduces the Blind Spot, by seeking feedback. The result of that will be a larger Arena, and the Unknown area will also reduce.

(Incidentally, analysis based on the Johari Window is thought to be the origin of Rumsfeld's famous 'unknown unkowns.')

Enter Nancy. Or rather, here's my freshest thinking, arising from having just run a Coaching Programme focussing on Nancy Kline's Thinking Environment. When we think, in the presence of a skilled Thinking Partner, using the Thinking Environment approach, and are encouraged to keep exploring our thinking, as happens in the Thinking Environment, we often hear ourselves say things about ourselves that surprise us. That is, we uncover and explore Blind Spots. Further, we do this in the presence of, and normally aloud to, our Thinking Partner or Coach. That also reduces our Façade.

That insight, that we can discover Blind Spots by ourselves, by a process of reflection, (rather than only by gaining feedback), also applies, of course, to other practices, such as Journalling, and (some types of) meditation. But the effect of having these discoveries witnessed by others is peculiar to discovering them out loud in the presence of someone else.

In discussing this with the ever-insightful Jane (my co-Director, Boss and Wife of some 40 years) she pointed out that disclosure, in confidence, to a coach is not the same as reducing one's façade at work. And of course she is quite correct. 

However something I have frequently observed is that people who have practiced (one might even say rehearsed) disclosure in a very safe environment, are more likely then to risk disclosure in the work place. In part, that is because they have removed a blind spot ("I'm not the kind of person who shares that kind of thing...") and in part because they have taken the risk and not experienced the rejection or judgment that they feared.

So if Joe and Harry's assumption (that an larger Arena makes for more effectiveness in teams etc) then I think that Nancy's process is one fast and effective route to that goal.

Sunday 7 April 2024

Generative Attention

I have always been struck by the phrase that Nancy Kline uses to describe the quality of attention that is at the heart of the Thinking Environment: Generative Attention.  The idea being that such attention is generative of good thinking in the person to whom we are giving it.

One of the ways in which we seek to demonstrate attention is by keeping our eyes on the eyes of the thinker.  This is not about staring the thinker down, of course; we talk of a 'soft gaze' and the thinker may look all over the place as she or he thinks, and often does so.  But if, whenever they glance at the listener, they see the listener looking at them, and looking interested, that is a non-verbal encouragement to keep thinking. 

And then, the other morning, Jane, my wise and wonderful wife, commented:

'I’ve been studying prayer; and it is clear that God always makes the first move - that when we turn to Him, He is already looking at us, waiting for us. It reminded me of your thing about attention: whenever the Thinker looks at you, she sees that you are already attending to her.

That set me thinking, not least about the idea of Generative Attention. For in Christian (and I think, though I’m no expert, Islamic and Jewish) theology, God holds us in being momemt-by-moment; Creation is a continuing action, not a one-off event. I am, because He is thinking of me. 

All of which reminds me, of course, of this famous pair of limericks:

Ronald Knox

There once was a man who said "God
Must think it exceedingly odd
If he finds that this tree
Continues to be
When there's no one about in the Quad."

Dear Sir,
              Your astonishment's odd.
I am always about in the Quad.
And that's why the tree
Will continue to be
Since observed by
                          Yours faithfully,

I have seen the first limerick, and sometimes the second, attributed  to Ronald Knox (incidentally the last man, I believe, to translate the whole Bible, singe-handedly, into English - and a fine translation it is!)  But I digress.

My real point is that it is God's attention that is truly Generative Attention. As Tolkien pointed out, human creativity is always sub-creativity.  And so it is here: when we offer Generative Attention, we are imitating God, which (in my theology) is what we are called to do.  And that could explain why it is so powerful and (sub-)creative a process.


With thanks to Christina @ for sharing her photo on Unsplash